America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
Americans tend to think there is a solution to every problem. In a corollary-equally misleading though not unnatural, given the unrivaled material strength of the United States-they imagine that when the problem is international the solution to it will be American. Most international problems, however, do not have final solutions. Only a Carthaginian peace is final; and short of that, as even unconditional enemy surrenders have demonstrated, the distribution of rewards and punishments soon turns out to have results very different from those the victors foresaw or desired. Applying these truths to the situation in Viet Nam, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that there is not a final solution to the war there; that neither a preliminary nor a lasting solution will be determined by the amount of force which we are able or willing to use; and that in neither case will it correspond to our idea of "victory."
Although the physical strength of the United States has grown phenomenally since shortly after World War II, our direct and usable influence in the world has not kept pace. We have immense military power, but the nuclear core of it, however indispensable in maintaining a balance of terror with the Soviet Union, is power we are powerless to use in remote situations of danger where our national interests, real or assumed, become involved. Pronouncements from Washington have not always made public opinion realistic in this respect. Military spokesmen are not in the habit of minimizing the effectiveness of their weapons or the wisdom of their strategy (although some of our most experienced battle-tried commanders have recently done so in very plain language). Political leaders faced with winning a war or an electoral campaign find it expedient (usually, that is: Churchill did not, nor did F.D.R. always) to sustain morale and gather support by issuing optimistic reports and predictions, minimizing risks and deficiencies and explaining failures to live up to prophecies by assurances that the causes have been understood and rectified.
In making an estimate of our responsibilities in the world and of our capacity to carry them out (not always to our own advantage only), we must not ignore how much the Viet Nam war is isolating us from other nations. The movement apart is from both sides. American neo-isolationists emphasize the indecisive nature of the war to show that we have greatly exceeded our capabilities; they identify our dispatch of aid to Viet Nam in the mid- fifties as only one more example of a fatuous urge felt by Americans after the last war to "do good" wherever asked; and they urge that in future we follow a policy of hemispheric defense only and adopt a thoroughly selfish approach to the needs of backward countries. Even some who for years have urged that we take our share and more than our share of responsibility for world security and social and economic development are beginning to falter; they wonder whether if our statesmanship is so shortsighted we should not limit our involvement abroad to occasions where it is clearly inescapable.
Somewhat similar questionings have risen abroad as to whether the United States can sustain its expected global role. Many leaders in friendly and allied countries feel that our entanglement in Viet Nam is unwise and unnecessary and fear it will be futile, even ruinous. This may be of more consequence for our future influence in the world than the vituperation directed at us in great sections of the foreign press. It is no use replying that practically every country where the public is given to these self-righteous outbursts has a record of inhumane actions in time of war. The tu quoque argument is never effective. Nor can we make it with any degree of satisfaction to ourselves. Too many of us are horrified by the suffering and sorrow we are causing, the wiping out of villages and devastation of cities in South as well as North Viet Nam, the relentless recitation of body-counts, the herding hither and yon of pitiful refugees now numbered in the millions, and the admission that (as many have known from the start) any bombing from great heights cannot be pinpointed, will cause indiscriminate destruction and must kill numbers of civilians.
These facts raise for sober discussion the question whether the incongruity between our original motives and the reasonably probable results of the war justify us in continuing it with the present methods, on a mounting scale, with increasing havoc in South as well as North Viet Nam and with a growing toll of Vietnamese and American lives. There are risks in any course we follow. Indeed, the stark fact is that the factors we must weigh in our minds and consciences are not advantages but disadvantages.
There is no need to recapitulate how step by step we have stumbled into a situation where every attempt to extricate ourselves will be painful. Looking back, we see that our grossest miscalculation was not military; it lay in failing to understand the people and society we were setting out to help. We did not foresee that a mainly military effort, no matter how massive, would not sustain their confidence through a long nightmare of guerrilla savagery.
When our first efforts to stabilize and reinforce the Saigon Government by sending it economic assistance and military advisers proved insufficient, we failed to make reappraisals of where each new political and military step would lead and what problems we would face in consequence. By 1965 we found ourselves forced either to admit that our intervention had been a mistake or to save the South Vietnamese army from dissolution and defeat by taking over most of the fighting. Since then it has become plain that we probably cannot be defeated militarily. Neither can we "win." No one can disparage the courage of our fighting men, certainly no one who has been among them in the field. But they are fighting under handicaps that are not military in nature. One is the apathy of the population around them; after years of colonialist exploitation and confused struggle, and lacking dynamic leadership like that of the North Vietnamese, the people of South Viet Nam are understandably weary, numb and uninterested. Another handicap is the inadequacy of the governments in Saigon which we have been fighting to maintain; these have been flagrantly and persistently corrupt, have shown little concern with principles and do not exercise effective influence over great sections of the population.
Of critical importance, no political or social underpinning has been built for such military successes as we have had. Almost without exception, competent observers have long been saying that "pacification" of the country was the number one issue. Washington and the American establishment in Saigon agreed. They promised-again and again-vast efforts to give the villages security, responsive civilian officials and the beginnings of modern conveniences. But the task was Herculean and they unfailingly put real reliance on the military and gave its needs and objectives precedence. Over the years, "pacification" projects bloomed and died. The attacks begun by the Viet Cong at Tet forced abandonment of the latest program; field teams and security troops had to be drawn back into the towns and cities to help restore order there and guard against fresh attacks. Any new effort will be begun on country-wide debris. It will be handicapped by the increased disillusionment of the rural population and, on our side, by the realization that these people are less disposed to coöperate with us than we assumed in the past. For the Viet Gong's ability to prepare and mount a coördinated operation throughout the country revealed that they commanded the help or at least the acquiescence of unexpectedly large segments of the population. It is a question whether the assistance to the Viet Cong in the jungles, mountains, rice paddies and towns was mainly active or passive, given enthusiastically or out of fright; but it was massive enough to mute the intelligence reaching our military establishment to such a degree that the Viet Cong secured a shattering tactical surprise.
Our Government seems to have suspected as little as did the American people that the cumulative commitment it was making would end in a land war fought on the Asian mainland mainly by American troops and almost wholly by American resources, exceeding in dimensions any foreign war except the Two World Wars and the Korean War. Even in Korea, though the casualties were greater than those we have so far suffered in the present fighting, the maximum number of troops committed at any one time was 470,000, a figure already surpassed in South Viet Nam, and growing fast.
On all possible grounds, political and humane, the President must desire peace. His problem-our problem-is one of means and costs.
If at this point the Administration recognizes that our original goals are not attainable, it should identify new goals and adopt the new policies needed to reach them. This involves a reassessment of our obligations to the present Government in Saigon. We are honor bound not to accept any situation which puts or leaves in physical danger those who have supported the war. (If this means providing a future for many of them abroad, the problems involved would be minor compared to the troubles we face in an indefinitely continuing and widening war.) But our obligation to the Saigon Government does not extend to letting it determine the basis on which we deal with the enemy to settle a war in which Americans, not the South Vietnamese, are now the principal protagonists.
In this regard we recently made one advance. Ambassador Goldberg, by his announcement on November 2, 1967, that the United States would support a move to invite the Viet Cong to participate in U.N. Security Council debates on Viet Nam, opened up the possibility that, despite Saigon's known objections, we might be willing to negotiate with the Viet Cong as well as the National Liberation Front and the Hanoi Government. It seems clear today that it was a mistake ever to have ruled out the enemy with whom we were most directly engaged from participating in talks to end the fighting. For one thing, the relationship of the Viet Cong to the Hanoi Government is not precisely known; its eventual objectives in South Viet Nam may well differ in some respects from those favored in Hanoi (as might become more evident at a time when it was no longer dependent on Hanoi for military supplies and reinforcements). Secondly, since we aim to preserve South Viet Nam as an independent state separate from North Viet Nam (assuming it so desires), it was unwise to proceed as though all the power of the enemy to determine the future of South Viet Nam was situated in the North.
When we first intervened in South Viet Nam our asserted aim was to help the people maintain their independence and decide their future for themselves: and this purpose we have many times confirmed. It is difficult to maintain that they exercised the right of free choice in the election of the present Government, on which so much of our policy is predicated. Granted that under the conditions of harassment which prevailed it was a feat to hold an election at all, the ruthless exclusion of rival leaders and of potential candidates with pacifist or neutralist leanings invalidates the claim that it is representative, impairs its authority and makes it a partner for which we are continually having to apologize. The ability of the people of South Viet Nam to make decisions may all along have existed only in our illusions, and a fortiori may be illusory today. Eventually they should be given a fairer chance to attempt making a choice than they have had so far: but under prevailing conditions of turmoil and insecurity this is impossible.
Given that impossibility, there seem to be two remedial actions which we can and should take.
First, we should make clear to the Theiu Government that we cannot any longer assume the major military burden of the war without some greater influence on the political environment in which we must operate and on which a successful outcome must depend. We cannot wish to take over responsibility for governing a society which is so sundered and indifferent. But if a last effort is to be made to constitute a political organism capable of surviving-on the supposition that a measure of military stability has been achieved-we must now insist that overdue reforms be put into effect forthwith. Promotion must be made on the basis of ability, not local influence or in-group political loyalty. Patently corrupt and incompetent officials must be dismissed. The arrest of non-communist political opponents cannot be tolerated. Land reform must be aggressively pushed, with more haste than might be desirable in a well-ordered society, but with an urgency that conveys an awareness that the peasant really matters. Other reforms, long discussed and rarely implemented, must be carried through.
Second, in order that there may be a real prospect that these reforms can be put into effect, we should insist that the Government widen its base willy nilly by forming a coalition régime containing representatives of the major elements in the South which are not communist but also are not unwilling to negotiate for peace. Some leaders who would have to be considered for inclusion are now in jail on some pretext or are, like "Big" Minh, in exile. To a government thus reconstituted we should make clear that if its members do not submerge their personal enmities for the common good, if they allow their political rivalries to interfere with pursuit of the war and an effort to achieve peace on tolerable conditions, we would consider our obligation to the South Vietnamese people fulfilled to the best of our ability. Our original commitment was to give them the opportunity to choose their own destiny; we can neither choose it for them nor indefinitely keep their options open.
The two procedures suggested are essential if we are to have reasonable flexibility in undertaking moves that we decide may be helpful in order to begin negotiations and in making any concessions that we decide are proper (in return for concessions from the enemy) to bring the negotiations to success.
President Johnson realized as long ago as February 2, 1967, that compromises would be necessary. He said then in a press conference: "I think that any peace agreement will involve understandings on both parts and contain concessions on both parts."
The pros and cons of suspending bombing in the North as a basis for opening negotiations have been argued out exhaustively and will not be rehearsed here. It must be said, however, that the President may have missed an opportunity to halt the bombing under favorable conditions when U Thant returned recently from consultations in Moscow, New Delhi, Paris and London and assured him that on the basis of those talks he was confident that a halt would result in Hanoi's entering into early negotiations. The President would have won wide approval by acting on this opinion; and if the experiment failed, the responsibility would not have been his but U Thant's, Kosygin's, Mrs. Gandhi's, Wilson's and de Gaulle's. Perhaps another opportunity will come to involve the prestige of several great nations in our effort to open negotiations looking to peace.
It has sometimes been urged that we relax our military pressure in the hope that the example will be followed by the other side, thus letting the war simmer down; this seems a less feasible procedure since the Viet Cong assumed the initiative by their sustained attacks on the cities. It has also been proposed that either U Thant or some foreign personality of undisputed bona fides undertake mediation. And there are other suggestions.
Nobody outside government, and probably nobody in government, can say with confidence what moves toward peace are likely to be reciprocated by the other side. But anybody is free to state the premise that our country cannot in conscience or good sense continue sacrificing lives-our own, those of our friends and those of our enemies-in an enterprise which was designed to help a people to freedom and prosperity but which instead is destroying them. Circumstances have changed and our policies must change to accord with them. We can assert with proper pride that our motives in first intervening in Viet Nam were of the best, and without humiliation that, in spite of great efforts and painful sacrifices, our calculations-or lack of them-somewhere along the way misled us. That is the truth which must be at the base of any new policies we adopt.
If these policies worry our Asian allies we must reassure them with acceptable guarantees that we shall continue to be involved in the region, at least until such time as the international community can provide an alternative. Their preference, like that of the Southeast Asian governments not directly involved, is that the whole area or part of it should be neutralized under an explicit international guarantee. It is not impossible that after the war is over the Soviets would be ready, as part of a general accommodation of interests, to join in such a guarantee. Viet Nam would be included, whether divided or united, and regardless of the character of régime. As one of the guarantors, the United States, if requested, would maintain a sufficient military presence in the area to deter overt aggression for some time to come. This might consist chiefly of air and naval forces based at strategic points but might also include land forces if, for example, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore or perhaps the Philippines would welcome them. After Viet Nam, the nations of Southeast Asia will understand that any protection promised from outside, however guaranteed, will be efficacious only if they themselves are determined to defend themselves. As Malaya proved, "dominos" need not topple if, with the right help, they prove to be made of the right stuff. In addition to joining in a military guarantee of the area, the United States would inaugurate a long- range program of economic aid on the scale suggested by President Johnson in the past. The details of such undertakings are less important at this stage than acceptance of the responsibility to carry them out.
Negotiation, of course, is not peace; it is only a means-a possible means- to peace. The Government of North Viet Nam may refuse to negotiate with us or with the present or a new South Vietnamese Government on any terms. There is no particular reason to suppose that the Soviets will press the North Vietnamese to let us extricate ourselves from a situation which is sapping our strength, creating domestic dissent and earning us worldwide disapproval-all without their having to do more than supply Hanoi with munitions for the fight. Moscow refuses to reassemble the Geneva Conference or some replica of it. Even with the continuing chaos in China, it fears to offend segments of the communist world by a move that would be interpreted as "helping the imperialists."
If the war continues in its present indecisive phase, pressure will mount in this country for what will be called a showdown; there will be demands for very greatly increasing our forces committed to Viet Nam and extending their operations into the North, either directly, or by an outflanking landing on the coast north of the Demilitarized Zone like that at Inchon in the Korean War, or even by employing tactical atomic weapons. Before we slip into a war spreading beyond all control, and with consequences that cannot be estimated, we should admit to ourselves that no practicable solution will correspond to our idea of victory and that our efforts to end it must accord with that hard fact.
In a moment when both Washington and Saigon seem almost in a state of shock, outsiders-if any American is an outsider at this point-must be free to express their profound concern, to press for a fresh look, a willingness to break out of frozen attitudes. Fear of losing prestige should not be a factor in determining our course. In the final accounting, the United States will be judged by its behavior when the fighting is over. We are strong enough to do what we think is right, and praise will come to us for doing right and fearing no man.